June 23rd, 1999, FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN -- Cyberspace Communications, Inc., an Ann Arbor-based non-profit corporation that operates the online community "Grex" (www.cyberspace.org), has joined a suit to block the implementation of Michigan Public Act 33 of 1999 (The Child Online Protection Act), which makes it illegal to transmit "sexually explicit" material to minors. The Act is scheduled to go into effect on August 1st, 1999. Other plaintiffs in the suit include the American Civil Liberties Union, Art on the Net, Web Del Sol, and the AIDS Partnership of Michigan. The ACLU's press release on the suit is available here.
Grex is an open-access online community, with a charitable mission and an all-volunteer staff, which hosts electronic discussions. It opposes the new law because the law is too broad (it would criminalize transmission over the Internet of many scenes which are shown on broadcast television), and it erodes the First Amendment right to free speech. It would also require that all discussion sites on the Internet validate the identities of all participants and censor any material which is visible to minors and of a "sexually explicit" nature. Validation and censorship would stifle a lot of healthy discussion, beyond what the law is meant to cover. And small "grass roots" organizations such as Grex, which cannot afford to pay validators or censors, would be forced to shut down.
"It is an understandable desire to want to protect children from what some people see as unhealthy influences," said Mary Remmers, spokesperson for Cyberspace Communications. "We have existing laws about child pornography and obscenity to do that. This law, however, is broad enough that 'sexually explicit' material may include discussions of rape, AIDS, safe sex, pornography laws, prostitution, and other topics which people are entitled to discuss openly and frankly. The law encompasses even clinical discussions of sexual issues, not just material designed to shock and titillate."
"It would be bad enough if this were the only material affected, but a law to outlaw one kind of speech inevitably affects other kinds. People afraid of saying the wrong thing will avoid getting close to a topic that might get them in trouble. The result is a widespread 'chilling effect' on free speech."
"In order to avoid prosecution under this act, Grex would have to authenticate all users and censor sexually explicit material," said John Remmers, president of Cyberspace Communications. In cyberspace, unlike in person, it is impossible to tell who is a minor and who is not. To comply with the law, open-access discussion systems would be required to collect ID from every participant, and then to censor areas which are accessible to minors.
"One of the ways Grex fosters lively debate is by encouraging any and all to participate and share their point-of-view," said Mary Remmers. "Insisting participants first register, then wait for an ID check, then submit their comments to moderators who would filter for content, would clearly limit participation and stifle discussion."
"It's well-established legally that free speech isn't really free unless it can be made anonymously," said Mark Conger, a Cyberspace Communications board member. It is against Grex policy to censor content or to insist that people identify themselves. "We have found time and again that the best answer to speech you don't agree with is to rebut it, not to censor it."
Even if censorship were an acceptable solution, it would not be feasible for an organization the size of Grex. Grex is a "grass roots" institution run entirely by volunteers. Its 1998 income was approximately $8200, which came almost entirely from donations. (The IRS has designated Cyberspace Communications a 501(c)3 charitable institution, so donations are tax- deductible.) Almost all of that money goes to pay utility bills to keep the system running. Grex has no money to pay censors or validators, and yet it has 29,000 users who post about 200 long messages and 5000 short ones every day. It would be logistically impossible to get volunteers to do the work of censoring that material and validating the 200 people who create accounts daily.
Putting organizations like Grex out of business has long-range implications for free speech. "One of the great advantages of the Internet is that an organization like Grex with a shoestring budget can be home to a community of thousands of people," said Mary Remmers. "If only large organizations with lots of resources could afford to host discussion forums, then all discussion would be limited by the biases and agendas of those organizations. Pressure from advertisers and shareholders might influence their censorship decisions. Under those conditions, speech is no longer free."
Cyberspace Communications is a 501(c)3 charitable institution founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1991. Its mission is to run the online system Grex (which means "group" in Latin) in order to foster free speech and community, and give Internet access to people who cannot afford to pay for it. Grex hosts forums on such topics as music, the arts, cooking, writing, consumer information, finance, small businesses, philosophy, living with disabilities, men's and women's issues, and games. Anyone with a computer and modem or access to the Internet can use Grex for free, anonymously if they wish. Funding comes almost entirely from donations, which are tax-deductible. Grex gets no money from advertising. Because Internet bandwidth is limited, users are not allowed to store pictures on Grex. For more information on Grex, visit http://www.cyberspace.org.